Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

Narcissus, the son of a river god, was known for his beauty. One day he saw his own reflection when he went to drink from a smooth-as-glass pool of water deep in the forest. Smitten by his own pretty face, he fell in love with himself. When Narcissus leaned down to kiss his image, it disappeared when he disturbed the surface of the water. Not wanting to tear himself away from the mirror image of his beauty, he vowed to never leave or break the smoothness of the water again. One day Echo, a mountain nymph, came upon him at the pool. Drawn to his beauty, she offered herself to him, but he scorned her, never taking his eyes from his reflection. Echo spent the rest of her days pining for the lout and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice – and our word for reflected sound that seems to come from nowhere. In the end, Narcissus died of thirst, and on that very spot appeared the flower that was named after him. 

Narcissus’ other lasting legacy is in our word narcissism, defined by the Mayo Clinic as a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Psychology Today adds narcissists believe they are deserving of special treatment. One way for them to feed their excessive need for praise is to buy and display exclusive and expensive products for the rest of us to admire.

Popular opinion, journalistic accounts, and academic theory all agree what motivates much of our consumer behavior is the desire for status.

Keeping up with the Joneses” is the effort to equal or surpass others in the appearance of wealth. Some attract attention to their wealth by spending money on expensive things. They believe this is the best way to impress other people and gain social prestige.

Conspicuous consumption.

Thorsten Veblen graduated from college in three years, a brilliant scholar and an individualist given to railing at established ideas. He went on to study philosophy, receiving his PhD from Yale. Unable to find a teaching position, he returned to his father’s farm in Minnesota and spent the next seven years reading.

Veblen delighted in exposing the amusements, fashions, and tastes of what he called the ruling class, the people who run our lives.

In his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe the social attitudes and values that made the misuse of wealth a thing to be admired. He believed businesspeople were obsessed with production and people were obsessed with consumption. According to Veblen, businesspeople force-fed obsessed consumers by producing and selling deliberately visible symbols of status and wealth. The book caught the interest of the literary world, where it was read as satire rather than as science. It earned Veblen a reputation as an astute social critic. Most are stunned to learn he was writing about these things in 1899.

Readily identifiable status items are important to higher and lower social strata alike. 

Logos and proprietary designs make high-end handbags, luggage, wristwatches, and sunglasses instantly recognizable as expensive luxury goods. For those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, ostentatious jewelry and clothing with prominent brand names are highly visible and preferred ways of flaunting wealth. As people at the lower end of socioeconomic scales have less experience with luxury goods, the status items need not be authentic to impress the peer group. While high income people can tell a real Rolex from a fake and real diamonds from cubic zirconia, lower income groups are less likely to be able to do so.

The best status symbols are portable, of course.

If the point of having status symbols is that others will see them and be impressed, then portable luxury items are the easy choice because they are seen by others everywhere you go.

The most common portable status symbol in much of the world today is the luxury automobile.

People covet luxury vehicles because they announce to the world that those who drive them have the means to buy them, which makes them better than you and worthy of your admiration.

Owners of luxury cars are jerks. 

That’s according to a study in Journal of International Psychology. The findings were clear-cut: self-centered men who are argumentative, stubborn, disagreeable, and lack empathy are much more likely to own high-status cars. Many of them are narcissists.

Many of them drive like jerks.

They are aggressive, antagonistic, and impulsive thrill-seekers. Narcissists are especially likely to violate traffic laws and exhibit unethical driving behaviors. Speeding, tailgating, passing without signaling, cheating at intersections, and threatening pedestrians at crosswalks are driving behaviors displayed by narcissists. And as it so happens, every one of those aggressive driving behaviors is also associated with high-status cars. A recent University of Helsinki study finds that many owners of high-status luxury cars are actually, in the study’s own words, “assholes”.

Paul Piff studies the association of wealth and ethics with moral behavior. 

He’s a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Berkeley. Piff says wealthy people:

  • Are less willing to take any perspective but their own.
  • Are less concerned with the well-being of others.
  • Think being better off financially makes them superior to those who are not.

In the Berkeley study, researchers observed and recorded drivers at four-way intersections with stop lights and/or stop signs all around.

The authors reported how “Drivers of upper-class vehicles were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection and proceed without waiting their turn, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic.” In another part of the study, researchers found drivers of expensive cars were also much more likely to drive through crosswalks without yielding to pedestrians. Piff said “None of the cars in the beater-car category drove through the crosswalk – they always stopped for pedestrians.” The New York Times said the study also found that male drivers were less likely than women to stop for pedestrians and that drivers of both sexes were more likely to stop for female pedestrians than males.

We use stereotypes every day to simplify our social worlds.

They reduce the amount of thinking we need to do. Thinking is an effortful activity. Many find it so exhausting that they seek to avoid thinking whenever possible. This is where stereotypes are easy things to fall back on. Because they are so deeply embedded in human culture, they come with standardized mental pictures, most of which have been exaggerated to prove a point, usually a negative one.

Uncomfortably for some, many stereotypes are based in fact.

Clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer says “Stereotypes are not bugs in our cultural software, but features of our biological hardware. This is because the ability to stereotype is often essential for efficient decision-making, which facilitates survival.” Yale psychologist Paul Bloom likes to say “You don’t ask a toddler for directions and you don’t ask a very old person to help you move a sofa. That’s because you stereotype.”

In study after study, BMW drivers were the worst on every measurement of bad driving behavior.

Type <BMW drivers are the worst> into Google and you’ll get more than four million hits, with countless memes, jokes, and videos of badly behaving Beemers. You’ll also come across several studies like I did. A poll conducted by Car Throttle found that four out of ten respondents believe “BMWs have the highest ratio of jerks behind the wheel.” BMW owners were the by far the worst of the worst (41% to Audi’s second-place 13%). Another study found 56% of those polled said BMW drivers were the most inconsiderate.

A U.S. car comparison site says the rudest drivers are BMW drivers.

Insurify study sponsors considered these actions as examples of rude driving: failure to yield, failure to stop, passing where prohibited, tail-gating, street racing, and hit-and-run. According to the their data, BMW placed number one and number two on the list (4-series drivers were worse than 7-series drivers). And finally, a United Kingdom study asked 2,837 drivers how often they experienced road rage. You can guess the conclusion – the most self-reported aggressive and angry drivers were 35- to 50- year old men driving BMWs.

Speaking of stereotypes, many men between 35 and 50 experience midlife crises.

Narcissists, on the other hand, are in constant midlife crisis. Some of them buy expensive high-performing sports cars that are phallic symbols screaming “Look at me!” Others skip the subtlteties.

Pollsters said it is possible these studies reflect a fair amount of class envy. 

They say those of us who are resentful of people who have more than we do want to believe that the guy behind the wheel of that expensive BMW is a jerk. Piff said “anecdotes along these lines are a dime a dozen, but they are subject to all sorts of biases, including illusory correlation, envy, antagonism, and so on. That’s one reason why I wanted to run some studies, to see if there was in fact a pattern in the noise.”

The results of each of these studies support the view that there’s some truth in the stereotypes.

BMWblog disagrees, saying because BMWs are fast and have excellent handling, they attract performance enthusiasts who like to drive fast and hard. They say the real reason BMWs get bad press is because people who don’t own them are jealous of those who do.

Narcissists weren’t the only ones likely to drive high‐status cars, though.

So do men and women who are principled, thoughtful, and pay attention to details. According to a study of Finnish drivers, conscientious luxury car owners are sending the message that they’re responsible and reliable. Study author Jan-Erik Lonnqvist said we are seeing a shift to other, sustainable ways of displaying status through car ownership. “We are already seeing that driving an electric car is becoming something of a status symbol, whereas SUVs with their high emissions are no longer considered as cool.”

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